Leading the Future: Jasmine Burton
This is the fifth installment of Exygy’s interview series, Leading the Future: Her Point of View. We hope to uplift present-day change makers who are moving the needle at the intersection of equity, social impact, and technology. Originally inspired by Women’s History Month in March, we’re excited to extend the celebration of women leaders outside of one month into ongoing conversations, reflections, and inspiration. This series is hosted by Roshen Sethna, Civic Partner at Exygy. Watch the full interview here.
Meet our phenomenal guest, Jasmine Burton (who goes by “Jas”), a social impact designer and hybrid professional. She’s founded several companies in the global health space, which she’ll walk us through below.
Sethna: Tell us about the hygiene space overall and what the main issues are there. Maybe even touch on some of the intersectionalities that crop up.
Burton: There’s 7 billion people in the world today and everybody goes to the bathroom. Everybody poops. This is a reality that we know, it’s 100% true. But the fact that people both in the US and abroad still don’t have access to safely managed sanitation — meaning they don’t have a toilet, meaning they don’t have waste management services that actually effectively get waste away from people in a way that they can live to their fullest potential. That reality still is keeping so many people behind. COVID has underscored that to a level that we haven’t seen before, you see a lot of public bathrooms in the US are closing because you want to control the disease spread, but then all these communities that don’t have access to it.
There are communities experiencing homelessness or rural communities that live on septic lines, maybe they have old septic systems. The lack of sanitation maintenance really leads to disproportionate health outcomes. In the US you see folks not having access to sanitation. You see open defecation in cities like San Francisco, Atlanta, you see that globally too — where people in different cultures, maybe there isn’t public sanitation available, but maybe it’s also a norm. How do you create solutions that actually meet people where they are? Rather than helicoptering in and saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t be going to the bathroom in the bushes. You should be using this ceramic throne that we have.” You want to make sure that you’re creating solutions that make sense in terms of the full supply chain, in terms of the full user experience.
It really is something that’s resonates, both domestically and abroad, when you look at systems like septic systems in the US. I have a lot of friends in the Atlanta area who are buying homes. If you don’t ask, you could buy a house that’s on a septic tank that’s not connected to the Atlanta sewer line, it could be 30 years old. If it’s almost to its capacity, that’s a $30,000 cost that you weren’t prepared to spend. That model is not sustainable for people. If it collapses, that leads to things like hookworm outbreaks. There’s a lot of opportunity, both in the US and abroad, to think about how we cater to these human functions, like sanitation, like menstrual health, where it’s taboo to talk about. There’s a lot of gender and social inclusion stigmas.
As we’re emerging from this time where many organizations are reevaluating their equity and inclusion practices, this is something that hopefully will come out of it. It’s seeing people realize that we’re all connected. If we don’t address people across the whole entire globe and in all walks of life, it’s going to impact all of us.
Sethna: You work both domestically and internationally. What are some of the systemic differences that you see in what you see abroad versus here domestically?
Burton: The first time I worked abroad, it was three years after I told my parents I was designing toilets. I had the opportunity to work on a senior design project at Georgia Tech with a team of incredible women. We came up with this toilet concept based on research. We interviewed a bunch of people and again, when you’re in university and you’re in school, like that’s awesome. Then you have this reality check when you put something that you’ve created, that you’ve designed in front of real people to get real solutions or real feedback.
It’s not just this concept that should work, or it should make everyone happy, it should be the answer. It’s a humbling experience. I think that a lot of designers have to go through a lot of creators in general, where it’s like, if it doesn’t meet the needs of the people that you’re working with, then it’s not a good design.
And I think, again, for us, like coming out of university, we were like, great, we won a competition, we got some funding. We went to a refugee camp in Kenya a couple of months later. And immediately we were like, “Wow, there’s a lot of things we didn’t know.” Some of the concepts were like, “This will be awesome.” But they just didn’t work conceptually. People didn’t understand how our drawer system that separated out different consistencies of waste, didn’t know how that worked. And then things how do you even talk to people about sanitation or about these stigmatized topics? Like how do you actually get that feedback? And as a designer, as someone who’s like, “this is something I’ve been working on. I’m so passionate about it. I really want to like working with people.” You have to recognize your limitations too.
That’s another experience of humility that I myself have been actively growing in. And I know a lot of others in the space recognize that in the US I’m a Black American woman, but in some contexts, I am not received that way. And because of my Americanness, like that will bias the data. And so recognizing at some points that you do need to step back, and at what point do you need to hand off the baton so that other folks, other designers, engineers from in culture, like the culture that you’re working in can get the real data, get the real feedback that you wouldn’t be able to get because of how you present in that context.
That’s a really big piece of something I’ve seen both domestically and globally, but it’s something that I think all people should recognize that it’s not like you’re a bad person. At some point you have your own limitations, you have to recognize them.
Sethna: I’d love to circle back to that. As I’ll put a pin in it about our role as product people or designers going into a certain context and understanding our power, our privilege that we’re bringing into it. Before we go back to that, I’d love to know more about your organizations and kind of the projects you’ve started to tackle.
Burton: After I had the chance to work with some incredible folks in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya coming out of school, I founded an organization called Wish for WASH. And so WASH being water, sanitation, and hygiene, and we operate as a collective. So we have a nonprofit arm and a for-profit arm. Our for-profit arm is really kind of, it houses a lot of our product development, which if you’ve ever worked in physical manufacturing, there’s a lot of layers to kind of the processes and the timelines. And again, with COVID, a lot of things have really shifted and stalled, and we’re sort of figuring out next steps.
So the for-profit holds a lot of that R&D as well as the intellectual property that we have around some of our initial toilet concepts. And then our nonprofit is really working on sort of creating this next generation of thought leaders that work at these intersections that I mentioned. This idea is kind of bringing in high schoolers, university students, grad students, young professionals, even altogether in a space to say, everybody’s voices are needed in this conversation, we need to have engineers. We need to have designers, we need to have business people, public health, people like across all these disciplines.
We also need to recognize that you might be a freshman in college, but you have this mindset and this worldview that could be beneficial in this work. Giving people in our organization the autonomy to own their successes and own kind of failing forward as we call it. So we’re an organization that’s rooted in human centered design. So this idea that failure is a part of the process, and we need to talk about those failures and we need to publish those failures, and we need to share those failures so that the sector at large can learn and grow and iterate and improve and move the needle forward. Rather than sort of spinning our wheels, reinventing the wheel, which I think sometimes particularly development work does unfortunately.
That’s really what we do in the nonprofit arm. We have about 60 plus people across the US right now, working on a number of things from peer reviewed publications, kind of looking at the intersection of innovation and inclusion in the sanitation space to creating curricula, working with Girl Scouts. How do we create a space for young girls to see the opportunity for STEM as a tool for driving change? A lot of people are like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so many big problems. It’s so hard to even think about how I could step foot in it.” And it’s like, if you have that mindset of design thinking, iteration, empathy, like that could be something that could be mapped across all global grand challenges. It’s been really cool to sort of see our organization grow over the past six years.
That’s my kind of entry point into the social enterprise space. And since then, I’ve also created a women owned consulting firm called The Hybrid Hype. And basically for a number of reasons, I found myself picking up contracts so that I myself can grow in my professional development. But also so that I could help bootstrap some of Wish for WASH’s work. So giving us that flexibility to stay true to a lot of our mission as we were sort of figuring it out rather than having to pivot based on funding needs. It really sort of gave us that flexibility from the beginning. And through the hybrid hype, I’ve been able to do contracts with Planned Parenthood with the CDC, with IDEO. So a really, again, cross cutting from health to gender equity, to design.
Last year coming out of initial conversations and the start of COVID, there was a big movement in the period space where people were saying periods don’t stop for pandemics. You saw toilet paper being an essential good, and a lot of these other hygiene products, but you didn’t see that same momentum and kind of focus around period products. When half the world has a period and like, why do we not have access to these products and services? And a lot of those supply chains were disrupted and COVID.
Sort of coming out of that I co-founded an initiative with two other women designers, Period Futures, in the Bay Area. We have been mostly remote as we’ve started this initiative, but this idea of sort of creating conversations around the future of periods and some of these concepts, we work with illustrators that kind of provoke what the future periods could look like. So some of them are really uncomfortable, some of them are weird, but this idea of not one period is the same. And just because that’s sort of how it’s been showcased in the product world. We have pads, tampons and cups, but it’s like, we have so many cars on the market. Why do we not have more period products on the market? So anyways, it’s this idea of sort of disrupting the status quo in terms of how we frame periods.
Sethna: Let’s get back to this question of equitable design and different approaches. Every other world right now is also having this reckoning about how we do stuff more equitably and recognize the dynamics between designers and the community. The concept of burdening a lot of people with, “Hey, can I have your time to understand this and that?” I’d love to learn just the ways you guys have evolved the research process or the design process or new things you’ve tried in contexts that are different from the things that have been put out by IDEO and others initially.
Burton: All of what you said resonates with me. I think, yeah, when we talk about communities that are disproportionately represented or impacted by things, I feel like that time piece isn’t always highlighted or recognized as a cost for people, particularly if you’re in a resource constrained community or marginalized community, like that is a huge piece. And I think too sort of the ideas around traditional research methods.
I mentioned before, like recognizing how you’re received in a community, regardless of your intention or all these things I think are so important. But then I think beyond that sort of to your point about methods like this idea of how do you kind of break down some of these barriers to talk about things so that people feel comfortable sort of revealing their true preference or revealing sort of their real thoughts.
I got my master’s in public health at the London School of Hygiene. And one of my thesis professors, he founded this kind of toolkit called behavior centered design, which is similar to design thinking. It is all rooted in behavior. And particularly when you’re looking at things like sanitation and hygiene were largely a lot of communities that are being studied are they’re studied a lot. And so people sort of know the words, people will be like, “Oh yes, I always wash my hands after I change my baby’s diaper.”
There’s also the layered things where it’s like, “are people going to think I’m the worst mother if I don’t say that I’ve done these things?” And so it is sort of about revealing how these tools that we can use so that we can help reveal reality. And I think this behavior centered design toolkit was really a piece that I integrated in my thesis. It’s fun in the sense that it makes the people that you’re working with in the community feel like they can either be someone else, like you can step into a new character or you can have them sort of document things without having to say them, because sometimes it’s like expressing it verbally is the challenge.
Whether that’s drawing or whether that’s like photo documentation of something that you might not be comfortable talking about. Or it gives people the opportunity to say, “If I had like a million dollars, like a monopoly sort of game, this is what I would do.” Sort of to show value and sort of preference in a context that isn’t right now.
There’s so much power in tools like that because it shows the humanity of people who are living their best life. They’re doing the best to live their best lives and again, sort of giving them the opportunity to show their truth in a way that doesn’t put them in a situation where they feel like they’re going to be judged or further questioned or anything.
Sethna: If someone is new to equitable design processes, especially internationally, are there certain resources or tools that you would recommend? How do people find you?
Burton: This idea around really understanding what it means to actually move in a way that’s equity centered, rather than it being a checkbox process. Which I think again, a lot of people have really good intentions or a lot of organizations have really good intentions, but if it’s not something that’s integrated in the whole of how you move, it does negate the big pieces that are important in how you conduct this work.
Being critical to that in your own practice, as you’re evolving as a designer or creative or a maker in this world, as well as in the organizations that you’re a part of. Sort of recognizing how might we improve, and framing it that way too where it’s not like we’re failures or we’re terrible. It’s sort of, how might we continue to be better at this practice?
There are a bunch of toolkits. I’ll say one, the Designer’s Critical Alphabet, I think is a good one. It’s on Etsy, I think. And there’s something that’s similar to that, where it’s like a designers kit or toolkit for learning sort of words and what words mean as it relates to equity and inclusion, which I think, again, depending on the nature of your organization could be really powerful to sort of break down some of these stigma, breakdown some of these conversations. So people actually know what these words mean, because I think again, sometimes words can be very trendy and you might not actually know what you’re talking about.
I’m “Jasmine K Burton” across all social platforms. Wish for WASH, we’re wishforWASH.com, periodfutures.org and thehybridhype.com. I’m happy to connect with folks that are interested in engaging in this work. And we’re always looking to have more people join our team, to support others. We have a bunch of really cool materials in the pipeline. Definitely happy to engage with anyone that’s interested.
About the Interviewer
Roshen Sethna is a partner at Exygy with experience in organizational leadership, digital innovation, and product management. She has guided Exygy’s top civic sector clients in implementing user-centered and agile methodologies. Her clients include the Judicial Council of California, San Francisco Unified School District, Center for Effective Public Policy, Bay Area Rapid Transit, and Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Roshen also led the Exygy team to design and build an open-source, digital, affordable housing platform for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing that is being scaled to three other jurisdictions in the Bay Area.